Too life-like: The Knight Errant (1870) by John Everett Millais

In 1870 the English painter John Everett Millais, the future 1st Baronet and President of the Royal Academy, presented a large painting ‘with the almost life size figures‘ at the Royal Academy. The painting The Knight Errant shows a medieval knight ‘freeing a woman who has been stripped and tied to a tree’.

The Knight Errant (1870) by John Everett Millais

The Knight Errant (1870) by John Everett Millais

The tree, a Silver Birch, was commonly identified with the female gender in the nineteenth century and was sometimes referred to as ‘Lady Birch’. Birch twigs were also traditionally used in flagellation. The woman’s clothes lie on the ground to the left and her molesters, assumed to be robbers by one critic, are seen fleeing the scene in the top right corner of the canvas. There is blood on the Knight’s sword and the torso of a dead man is visible behind him. (Rebecca Virag at Tate Collection)

But this painting with such a naive classical content stirred up feelings of dissatisfaction among the public and critics. The artist’s naturalistic approach was recognized as unacceptable. The critics thought the woman was ‘too life-like’, especially in comparison ‘with the continental practice of idealising the nude’. In June 1870, the Art Journal claimed that ‘the manner is almost too real for the treatment of the nude‘.

Sharp criticism made Millais ‘cut out the head and chest of the female figure from his canvas and re-work these parts to show the woman turning modestly away‘. Through X-ray examination of the picture, it is seen that woman’s ‘head and torso were originally turned towards the Knight, establishing eye contact’. The painter didn’t painted nude female figures anymore in his career.

It is remarkable that the original section with woman’s head may be seen on another Millais’ canvas called The Martyr of The Solway.

The Martyr of the Solway (c.1871) by John Everett Millais

The Martyr of the Solway (c.1871) by John Everett Millais

Using these two pictures Martin Beek made the wonderful probable reconstruction of the initial painting.

Knight Errant 1870 by Millais and the Victorian Nude by Martin Beek | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Knight Errant 1870 by Millais and the Victorian Nude by Martin Beek | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Links
1. Tate Collection | The Knight Errant by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
2. Tate Collection | Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
3. File:The Knight Errant 1870.jpg – Wikimedia Commons
4. File:John Everett Millais – The Martyr of the Solway.jpg – Wikimedia Commons
5. John Everett Millais – Wikimedia Commons
6. John Everett Millais – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
7. Knight Errant 1870 by Millais and the Victorian Nude. Millais and Manet. | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

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